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I have always wondered about the rationale behind combining white vinegar and sodium bicarbonate to perform household cleaning jobs, and to unblock drains. I would have expected white vinegar to act well on its own as an acidic cleaner, and sodium bicarbonate to act well on its own as a base cleaner.

Does combining them not simply neutralise the potential of each to perform its job?

The same combination is often recommended for unblocking slow drains. Again, depending on what is blocking the drain, I would have expected that an acid or base would act well in isolation. And given that hair and soap are the likely culprits, I would have anticipated that sodium bicarbonate, a base, would be the more effective.

What is the justification for this? Is it, perhaps, the mechanical action of the carbon dioxide produced that is intended to lift whatever is blocking the drain? Or is there something else at play?

Thank you in advance.

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Quoting text from this source under the section "Why could baking soda and vinegar clean clogged drains?" :

Bicarb soda and vinegar react because of the acid-base reaction. Bicarb soda is bicarbonate $(\ce{NaHCO3})$ and vinegar is acetic acid $(\ce{CH3COOH})$.

When bicarb soda and vinegar react, they fizzle and sizzle and they expand. This is why they are able to remove clogs from drains. The pressure from the expanding product shoves the clog down as it moves along. The vinegar solution (vinegar plus water) can remove soap residue that clings to the walls of the pipes.

So it seems like your conjecture is justified, that it is not actually the reactivity of these two substances with the waste that is responsible for majority of the cleansing, but simply the mechanical action of the expansion of the carbon dioxide gas and the forming product that pushes the waste down the drain, and leads to unclogging.

The relevant chemical equation is:

$$\ce{CH3COOH (aq) + NaHCO3 (s) -> CH3COONa (aq) + CO2 (g) + H2O (l)}$$

This is similar to the mechanism by which baking powder makes a cake fluffy on addition of a little vinegar as explained here.

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    $\begingroup$ Please don't trust random websites. There is no such thing as carbonic acid at least in the solution. Your second equation is better. $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Jul 2 at 0:11
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    $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq Yeah even I was skeptical about the carbonic acid part, I have removed that now. Also, while citing it, I felt that the website above is somehow related to an official Australian plumbing body, but I guess it's just a random company. Will keep that in mind $\endgroup$ – Yusuf Hasan Jul 2 at 5:49
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$$\ce{NaHCO3(s) + CH3COOH(aq) -> CO2(g) + H2O(l) + CH3COONa (aq)}$$

From what I can see in the reaction, an amount of water and carbon dioxide is produced which has the potential to move around blockages in the drain similar to using club soda to remove stains from a shirt or table cloth. The resulting sodium acetate is a weak conjugate base and water is too weak to react with anything blocking a drain to begin with. By deduction, I think your hypothesis of the drain cleaning being an action of the gases produced is correct.

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    $\begingroup$ Please try to provide references whenever possible while answering,especially when you are trying to prove or disprove the OP's hypothesis for a situation $\endgroup$ – Yusuf Hasan Jul 1 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Yusuf, the general rule for references is that certain factual stuff does not need references in scientific writing. For example, if we write the Sun rises from the East. We won't provide reference but if I say, the composition of Sun's atmosphere is a certain gas, yes this fact needs a "support." $\endgroup$ – M. Farooq Jul 2 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq Ok, I see...The only reason I commented was that this answer had not provided any references whatsoever,even for where the chemical equation had come from. But I see your point, will keep that in mind $\endgroup$ – Yusuf Hasan Jul 2 at 6:08
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The exothermic reaction of the acetic acid on $\ce{NaHCO3}$ provides heat and I do agree that the vigorous nature of the reaction forming $\ce{CO2}$ is likely instrumental in clearing the drain.

Also, I suspect employing an excess of NaHCO3 is probably beneficial as on warming it releases CO2 and creating more alkaline Na2CO3, which will also attack grease.

Reaction:

$\ce{2 NaHCO3 -> Na2CO3 + H2O + CO2 (g)}$

Note: Baking Soda is a common ingredient employed in dishwashers owing to its ability, especially on warming, to dissolve fats/grease (see discussion here).

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